Structured knowledge tree

I previously discussed the non-cumulative nature of email as a communication medium, and the short-comings implied by the associated semantics. One of the key paradigm shifts necessary to reach efficient team exchanges involves centering the whole communication system on a cumulative core, where relevant knowledge gets constantly and directly added, updated, and refined through a collaborative authoring mechanism.

In practice though, knowledge stored on shared file systems that do not integrate with the messaging tools used regularly by the team quickly becomes obsolete. At the very best, it is in an almost constant state of obsolescence between infrequent major updates: the effort involved in keeping it up-to-date, requiring synthesizing the substance of email exchanges and working out their effective impact on the stored knowledge, is very expensive. This is the case with any system where multiple modeling paradigms (here the cumulative vs. non-cumulative models) coexist and the task of bridging these models remains a manual activity: c.f. the effort and risks involved with manually translating from the design modeling semantics to the programming language semantics in Object Oriented software design, and the number of two-way tools that have emerged to close that gap. Obviously, avoiding such obsolescence should be a major design goal of any efficient communication and knowledge building system. This fact indicates that shared files systems alone are not the answer to the challenge of structured exchanges and knowledge systems.

Another crucial design point of structured knowledge systems revolves around their decision auditing and deconstructing capabilities. I think of this as their reflective capabilities: when we envision communication as a mechanism to reach and refine decisions, it is important to observe that those decisions will constantly need to be revisited: by the decision makers throughout the lifecycle of their project, by the managers or customers of the product, by new team members trying to educate themselves on the knowledge relevant to the project. It follows that the ability of the gathered knowledge to be parsed or apprehended in a way that illustrates the analytical process that led to all the embedded decisions is critical. Ultimately, the communication and knowledge building system must exhibit good didactic or educational properties, and offer multiple knowledge browsing perspectives, following either the hierarchical structure of the captured knowledge itself, or instead slicing through that structure along decision making perspectives.

Therefore, the self-describing, browsing and annotation capabilities of the knowledge system are of critical importance. This relates tightly to the communication concepts exposed in Barbara Minto’s The Pyramid Principle, in which she exposes a set of practical guidelines to be used when presenting one’s analysis to an audience, by resisting the urge to build up suspense or recount the trial-and-error-driven discovery process following the sequence in which it occurred, but by offering, instead, the conclusion up-front, and letting the audience guide the presenter through the subset of points they challenge, in order to maximize efficiency and concision, while minimizing the amount of redundant or well-known information that needs to be exchanged.

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